The trump card for the Hautes-Pyrénées is its 26km flat cycle path leading from Lourdes to Cauterets – this converted train track following the river is very popular with cyclists, roller-bladers and evening strollers.
Drive up high, park the car and within a short walk appreciate views that would otherwise be inaccessible with children. The valley of Gavarnie is a must; you can park in the village and walk up to the highest waterfall in Europe, and even hire mules if the 2hr trek is too much for the children.
The ski station of Hautacam is fun for kids, with its summer mountain luge (bob-sleigh circuit on rails) and its go-karting and quad bikes. These can be combined with an hour-long walk to the peaceful lake of Isaby.
The valley of Cauterets is worth driving through, with its many impressive roadside waterfalls. The road ends at the park known as Pont d'Espagne, where you can catch a couple of ski-lifts then walk for half an hour to reach Gaube lake. Here you can shiver as you gaze at the glaciers loitering in the shadows of Vignemale, the highest of the French Pyrenean peaks.
The Pyrenees are teeming with wildlife, and spotting a marmot or an izard (the Pyrenean version of the chamois) can be the highlight of a walk. However, you need to know what to look for. The Parc Animalier at Argelès-Gazost is a pleasant place to learn about mountain animals – kids love being able to get so close to them. The visit begins with an awe-inspiring gallery of stuffed mountain animals and continues along a path taking you past or into enclosures full of marmots, squirrels, otters, deer, foxes, bears and wolves. Info boards give explanations in English, and there's a great photo opportunity as the kids stroke the marmots.
If you want to recognise the birds of prey circling the snow-drizzled peaks, you'll have to get close – which isn't easy. Instead, opt for the Donjon des Aigles in Beaucens, where you can admire the magnificent creatures perched in the castle ruins then sit on the lawns to watch the bird-handlers demonstrating the birds' skills. The backdrop of castle and mountains is in itself a show. The commentary is only in French, but having your hair swept by the wings of an owl, buzzard or vulture is an experience not to be missed even if you don’t understand what is said.
Mountains don't only mean trekking, they also demand climbing skills, and there are several safe environments where children can develop rope techniques in the area. Firstly, there are the treetop adventure circuits. Chloro'fil, a few kilometres from Argelès-Gazost, is an example of how natural woodland can be tastefully transformed into a tourist attraction – and is perfect for hot days, too. The courses are arranged in the woods around a grassy clearing where you can enjoy watching the human squirrels scampering in the trees. There are four fun circuits for 4-14-year-olds (less than 1.4m tall); parents are expected to keep a vigilant eye on their offspring. A couple of huts contain interactive games on the mountain environment.
For more contact with rock, the bureau des guides organisations in each valley offer introductory rock-climbing lessons for children as well as guided via ferrata circuits – a type of rock-climbing where you clip onto steel cables and climb on metal steps embedded in the rock. On some routes you can also whizz along cableways spanning the valley between two buttresses. The activity base on the GR10 campsite near Cauterets caters for all age-groups and has an English-speaking guide. One parent can do the via ferrata with the older children (who must be at least 1.3m tall) while the other can take the younger kids (4-10-year-olds) on the kiddies’ tree course.
Other good bets for family holidays in the region are river activities such as rafting, caves to visit, including the Grottes de Médous, and the kids' fishing course at Le Parc du Lutin Pêcheur.